What is Selective Attention?

Selective attention is the ability to notice and pay attention to some environmental stimuli and not others.  We are often not in control of our attention, yet controlling it is a vital self-management tool, even more so as we participate in a world which has seemingly exponential distractions and expectations of multi-tasking. Here’s how to understand attention and how to be better at it.

Why can teenagers hear the words “grandma’s sent you a cheque” and not “tidy your room”? 

This is a common question in any parent’s mind, and whilst we might consider it is automatic response of a (normally teenage) belligerent offspring, it is actually much more than that and it isn’t just teenagers that do it either. It turns out to be a well-developed mechanism for coping with information overload. Selective attention to heard information is very similar to the act of scanning l the headlines to hone in on the subjects that interest or that have relevance to us, rather than reading the fine detail of every article in the order we see them.

We all have a level selective attention, whether it is ‘tuning out’ the television whilst having a conversation, talking on the ‘phone or even playing on Facebook.  It also allows us to ignore the whine of the washing machine, the sound of the oven and the boiling a kettle whilst we are working in the kitchen. We can happily ‘listen’ to the radio ‘in the background’, and even that may be ‘tuned out’ when we come to a specific task.

So, back to the teenager.  Young people are often short of cash so their scanning brain is more likely to hear the words “you a cheque” than other words which they hear all the time and are not interested in.  Perhaps one way of getting them to listen is to mention a cheque immediately before you ask them to tidy their room!

What is the cocktail party phenomenon ?

Have you ever been in a noisy room where there is a buzz of chatter and you can hear conversations but not the words, then suddenly, bang!  You hear your name or the name of someone of interest to you?  What happens next happens to everyone. Your ears become like radar as you track down the source of the voice and you either move closer or strain to hear the rest of the conversation. So why is it that we can pick out stuff that is of interest to us even when we have no warning that it is coming?

The cocktail party effect, sometimes referred to as the ‘cocktail party phenomenon’ is the ability to ignore other people’s conversations and actions to concentrate on just one conversation. It also refers to the practice of identifying a relevant external stimulus i.e. word in another conversation within earshot and being able to “tune in” to that instead.

How does it work? 

Research has shown that the cocktail party effect is a “binaural effect”. This means it requires the listener to hear with two ears. If a person has only one functioning ear, the research shows they are more distracted by extraneous noise and cannot focus on the ‘target’ source.

The auditory system of the human brain appears to be able to identify where two or more sound sources are coming from and to be able to identify whether the content is of interest/relevance to the listener, whilst filtering out extraneous noise surrounding those sources. The brain acting like all those clever intercept computers that are seen in the spy movies. (EXPLAIN)

How can we improve our attentiveness? (That is all dependent on whether you want to)

If we were to hear and attend to everything in our earshot we would have severe problems. Attentiveness has a downside and that is information overload.   Imagine no filtering. Even if you are sitting in a quiet room as you read this article you would be amazed at how much noise there really is.  Just for a second now, stop reading and really, really listen for a few seconds.  How many sounds do you hear?  Half a dozen, more?  Imagine how difficult concentration would be if you paid attention to all, all of the time.

For a person to function in a world where information is ‘thrown’ at them twenty-four seven, from multiple devices and sources, there is a need to filter and ignore. However returning to teenagers, ignoring pertinent information when learning or in preparation for examinations is not a sensible option. Similarly, in the workplace, an employee who is not attentive is both likely to be less productive, and potentially a liability.

Being attentive is a positive action, which can have many benefits, but one that needs to be managed to avoid information overload.

There are a number of demonstrated strategies for improving attentiveness. The following list (which is not exhaustive) illustrates ten that are widely recognised and useful:

  1. Value being attentive – Something is only relevant to a person if they focus on it and appreciate it is of importance to them. Give yourself time to listen in different environments. In your garden or outside; in your house late at night when all are sleeping, experiment! Remember, even in a library there is noise
  2. Live in the now – This means responding immediately to stimuli, but in that response applying all the lessons from previous experiences.
  3. Being more aware – People need to not only understand why they are doing something, but how that makes them feel. If they feel bad about doing something they will not be attentive. If you notice that you feel bad about something e.g. attending a lecture, then this is the first step to changing how you feel and therefore how much you learn.
  4. Looking for detail – This takes effort, but sometimes focussing on the smaller aspects of for example a voice or a project brings it into sharp relief. In addition look to be stimulated and enjoy that detail as this will reinforce the attention paid to the subject.
  5. Identify what needs attention – All too often we try ‘boil the sea’ when it comes to projects or even jobs, having no clear goals or targets. If there are goals and targets that are particularly relevant to us, ether from a financial reward or sense of achievement, then we will be more attentive to them.
  6. Notice if background noise such as music aids attention or distracts when reading or working. As a rule of thumb music without words is better than that with words or you could end up focussing on the aural input rather than what you are reading.
  7. Remove distractions and don’t try to do too many things

Being attentive requires practice – Like all skills it takes time. There is a common line that ‘if you practice anything for 10,000 hours you become an expert’. Whilst this statement does not have scientific underpinning, it is a truism that if something is repeated often enough it can become an unconscious habit. If a person focuses on being attentive on a regular basis, it is logical that they should get better at it.


Bronkhorst, Adelbert W. (2000). The Cocktail Party Phenomenon: A Review on Speech Intelligibility in Multiple-Talker Conditions”  Acta Acustica united with Acustica  vol 86 pp117–128.

Word Count 1225

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